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Secretary of Defense Readiness Remarks at Heritage Foundation

Good afternoon everyone and thank you, Kay, for that very kind and generous introduction. And I want to say a big thank you to the Heritage Foundation for hosting this discussion about the successes of the Department of Defense and the challenges we face, when it comes to implementing the National Defense Strategy in this era of great power competition.

Today, our strategic competitors, China and Russia, are attempting to erode our hard-earned gains as they undermine international rules and norms and use coercion against other nations for their own benefit. We continue to see this behavior globally, from Beijing’s predatory economics and its aggression in the South and East China Seas, to Moscow’s violations of its international obligations and the sovereignty of its neighbors.

When I was confirmed as Secretary of Defense in 2019, I made my top priority the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy. This strategy guides our work to protect our comparative and competitive advantages and defend a free and open global order along three lines of effort: first, improving the lethality and readiness of the force; second, strengthening allies and building partners; and third, reforming the department for greater efficiency and accountability. I also added a fourth, personal priority: taking care of our service members and their families. 

We have made great progress on all these fronts, which we distilled into ten targeted goals to drive change across the entire Defense Department enterprise – from focusing the department on China, to developing coordinated guidance to strengthen allies and build partners; from modernizing the force by investing in game-changing technologies, to reforming the Fourth Estate; and, from reallocating, reassigning, and redeploying forces in accordance with the NDS, to developing a new joint warfighting concept, just to name a few. 

In recent weeks, I have discussed our progress in several of these areas, including modernization, and our plan for our future naval fleet of over 500 ships. Today, I’d like to highlight our efforts on another top ten goal: achieving higher levels of sustainable readiness. 

First, it is important to define what readiness really means for the United States Armed Forces. Simply put, readiness refers to our military’s ability to answer the nation’s call, and to fight and win, anytime, anywhere. It is comprised of the training and equipment we provide our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and space professionals, as well as the deployment and maintenance schedules that drive our operations, and the way we keep our service members physically strong and mentally tough.

The bottom line is that each part of the readiness life cycle is vital to preparing and enabling our men and women in uniform to successfully execute their mission. The question we must answer is this: if called upon to fight tonight, are we ready? 

Today, given our efforts over the past few years, I am fully confident the answer to that question is a resounding yes!

I will explain why in a few minutes, because first I want to show through historical example how we learned the hard way the costs of not being ready. 

In July 1950, at the beginning of the Korean War, an understrength infantry battalion and an artillery battery of close to 500 American soldiers rapidly deployed to the outbreak of that conflict to a position north of Osan, South Korea, to delay the invading North Korean forces. These men, known as Task Force Smith, arrived without the standard kit of a regimental combat team, including tanks and air defenses. Moreover, they had very little ammunition, their training was inadequate, few of them had any combat experience, and their anti-tank weapons were ineffective.

Yet, they would soon encounter thousands of enemy forces and dozens of North Korean tanks. Outgunned by the heavy armor and outmaneuvered by enemy infantry, Task Force Smith was forced to retreat, suffering heavy casualties in the process. The Battle of Osan demonstrated the tragic consequences of leadership’s failure to understand the mission and their responsibilities, leaving American troops unprepared, with obsolete equipment, and heavily outmanned.

For many years, to include my time on active duty as an Infantry Officer in the 1980s, the training imperative of the Army was “No more Task Force Smiths.” That must remain our mantra today.

Our security environment looks much different 70 years later, but the lessons we learned about the importance of readiness remain with us. Today, the NDS requires the U.S. military to focus on preparing for a high-end fight against near-peer adversaries. To do so, we must acknowledge that for the past two decades, our attention was directed mainly toward fighting low-intensity conflicts against insurgents and violent extremist organizations. Moreover, years of insufficient budgets and sequestration caused significant damage to our readiness – until 2017, when we were able to begin reversing course by adding over $200 billion to our budgets through fiscal year 2019. 

Over the past few years, the department has refocused and restored readiness in accordance with the NDS, along three major categories – people, policy, and performance – each of which I want to address in greater detail. 

In the policy category, the department has made our biggest changes in Global Force Management since the early 2000s, with the aim of creating more ready forces with far greater readiness and operational unpredictability. The NDS recognizes the need to balance the department’s modernization for future, high-end conflicts with the demands of current operations. 

To do so, we must grow our available pool of ready forces. Next, we must deploy them with greater agility in response to crises and strategic opportunities. And finally, we must be more disciplined in how we manage this ready supply from the Services with the requests from Combatant Commanders. In addressing this challenge, the department has undertaken two major policy shifts. 

First, implementing Dynamic Force Employment allows us to rapidly reposition forces to enhance deterrence, to introduce operational uncertainty into our adversaries’ calculus, to take advantage of global opportunities and emerging situations, and to test our own readiness. 

Second, increasing the number of highly-ready Immediate Response Forces and follow-on Contingency Response Force units, the IRF and the CRF, and providing greater central authority to use them globally, allows us to tailor the readiness of the Joint Force for the most stressing war plans.

Combined, these policy shifts – which constitute another one of our top ten NDS objectives – have enabled us to think and act globally, with speed, unencumbered by limitations within individual, geographic Combatant Commands. This construct has also allowed us to be much more confident in the joint force’s preparedness, and in directing readiness levels from the Services, while also creating predictability and efficiency within our programming and budgeting system.

A particularly salient example is the Bomber Task Force operational concept. In April of this year, I approved an Air Force construct to improve the readiness and strategic flexibility of our bomber force, moving away from a 16-year static and predictable presence on Guam that was burning down readiness. This change was also necessary to complicate Beijing’s decision-making and prevent them from targeting our assets or limiting our range with their growing capabilities.

The impact of the Bomber Task Force concept extends beyond the Indo-Pacific, however, offering a range of options to Combatant Commanders in multiple theaters, including Europe. In August, six B-52 bombers from Minot Air Force Base, supported by a robust airborne tanker brigade, overflew all 30 NATO countries in a single day, integrating with allied fighter aircraft along the way. This robust show of force by a broad coalition did not go unnoticed by Moscow. Neither did our ability to rapidly deploy our bombers anywhere, at any time, sending a strong message of our commitment to our allies and partners.

Moreover, the Air Force continues to maintain a heightened posture of readiness to deploy fighter squadrons on short notice, much like we did late last year to support Saudi Arabia, following Iran’s attacks on its soil.

Another example is the aftermath of U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed militia sites in Iraq last year. On December 31st, Pentagon senior leaders were informed of a large, violent protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, followed hours later by notice of a possible embassy breach. This triggered the requirement to deploy an Immediate Response Force, which was successfully accomplished within 19 hours of the incident. Over the next three days, an entire Infantry Brigade Combat Team consisting of more than 3,000 soldiers and equipment was deployed halfway around the world to secure American lives and property in Iraq.

The Navy has also executed multiple short-notice movements under dynamic force employment. This includes the deployment of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower earlier this year, which was quickly adjusted in light of the coronavirus outbreak and forced the Ike to remain at sea for seven months to continue its maritime stability and security operations in the Middle East. It also includes the rapid deployment of the Comfort and Mercy hospital ships to the east and west coasts of the United States in March, to provide medical support in COVID hospitals to support the American people. 

Moving on to people, the department has pursued several initiatives to train our personnel for great power competition, to better prepare them to deploy if called upon, and ensure they are less likely to serve in back-to-back deployments – all while improving their quality of life.

Our path forward also relies on Service-level training and professional military education that develops the expertise of our force on Chinese military systems, tactics, and doctrine – much like my generation did when we studied the Soviet armed forces during the Cold War. As part of our top 10 goal to focus the department on China, I directed the National Defense University to refocus its curriculum by dedicating 50 percent of the coursework to China by academic year 2021. I also tasked the military Services to make the People’s Liberation Army the pacing threat in our professional schools, programs, and training. 

Another critical factor in our readiness is the size and composition of our deployable force, which we now track in ways we never did before. We have added nearly 30,000 military personnel to our ranks since 2016, and made great gains not simply by growing our end strength, but by maximizing the number of service members we are able to deploy at any given time. This was the result of close, senior level and senior leader attention to needed reforms such as quickly resolving medical conditions, enabling service members to get back to a ready status sooner. 

Ultimately, we drove down non-deployable numbers past our goal of five percent of the force, increasing readiness by returning tens of thousands of personnel to fully deployable status months ahead of schedule. For example, over the last few years, the Army’s non-deployable population has decreased well over 50 percent, meaning many more soldiers are available for a potential, high-end fight, if called upon to go.

Since 2017, the Air Force has recruited and trained 4,600 additional maintenance personnel, which, coupled with additional investments, drove a 19-percent increase in overall unit readiness. At the same time, the number of sailors filling operational sea-duty billets is at its highest point since 2014.

Meanwhile, we are doing everything in our power to balance the inexorable demands of overseas deployments with readiness and our service members’ commitments at home. One of our first tasks – before we make a decision to send forces abroad – is to determine how the deployment will impact their work/life timelines. By increasing and monitoring these deploy-to-dwell thresholds, we are working to make sure every warfighter and unit gets adequate time to recover from their last deployment, is well trained and prepared for their next one, and on a more personal note, experiences more of the important moments in their families’ lives. We aim to do all this while enabling the Services to continue to generate enough readiness for both today and tomorrow.

Key to our people’s ability to execute their mission is their resiliency and wellbeing. This is why we continue to take steps to improve service members’ quality of life, including by expanding the availability of childcare, helping spouses sustain their careers through multiple PCS moves, improving housing, and providing mental health resources and other support. It is also why we remain focused on reinforcing ethical leadership across the force, fostering trust in the chain of command, and promoting inclusion and equal opportunity for all. 

Finally, regarding performance, the department is working alongside industry partners to improve maintenance and sustainment, while investing in high-end training and exercises to increase the proficiency of the force.

Many of our aircraft have undergone extensive maintenance and much-needed upgrades over the past few years to substantially increase their readiness levels. This includes the F/A-18 Hornet, whose mission capable rate increased from a long-term average of 55 percent, to 80 percent, as of last year. Among several initiatives, the Navy divested from the oldest, legacy Hornets, and harvested more than 14,000 repairable items for spares. 

Additionally, improvements were made to manage the aircraft undergoing depot repair and increase workforce employment. As a result, we now have more ready aircraft on the flight lines, and pilots with greater proficiency and experience.

The department’s fiscal year 2021 budget request aimed to strengthen warfighting readiness with a balanced mix of fighter aircraft – including F-35s – to ensure American air dominance. As we transition to new platforms, we continue to restore and maintain legacy ones, such as the CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift transport helicopter. The Marine Corps has improved this helicopter’s mission capable rate by nearly 10 percent since fiscal year 2017 in fleet squadrons, and returned 38 helicopters to full mission capable status – supporting the execution of over 104,000 flight hours in training and operational flights.

Overall, the Navy’s readiness has been on an upward trend since 2018, thanks to increases in readiness funding, and process improvements in aviation and private shipyards, including the hiring of hundreds of additional shipyard personnel. As a result, on-time ship maintenance completion rates have increased considerably, which I was pleased to see during my visits to shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia, and Groton, Connecticut. Further, the Navy is investing $20 billion over the next 20 years to modernize our aging public shipyards, recognizing the impact that these improvements will have on our goal for Battle Force 2045 – the modern 500-plus ship Navy I outlined last week. 

The Air Force and Space Force have also made significant progress in rebuilding readiness across multiple aircraft fleets, satellite constellations, and mission sets, while actively pursuing the development of integrated systems such as the Advanced Battle Management System. Key in this effort has been our investment in Weapon System Sustainment, with a nine percent funding increase yielding tangible improvements in aircraft availability and training opportunities. And, as the priority for manning, “first to fight” front-line units have seen increased readiness as high as 45 percent over the past two years.

Meanwhile, we have enhanced our ground combat capabilities by converting Infantry Brigade Combat Teams to Armored Brigade Combat Teams, the Army’s most lethal and mobile combat formations. Over the past four years, the Army has increased the number of ABCTs ready for deployment by 30 percent, while also upgrading and modernizing more than 470 Abrams tanks. Additionally, this year the Army conducted its largest strategic force projection exercise in nearly two decades, with Defender 20, integrating Armored Brigade Combat Teams with our NATO partners in both maneuver and live-fire exercises on the European continent. 
Among our efforts to further enhance the proficiency of our force, the Defense Department has streamlined pre-deployment training, preparations, and medical requirements, by returning those decisions to the military departments. This April, I also signed the Joint Operational Training Infrastructure Strategy to integrate our efforts to modernize operational training over the next ten years. This is a vital step toward fulfilling another one of our top 10 goals: that is, establishing realistic joint war games, exercises, and training plans. In doing so, we will ensure the Joint Force receives better training that replicates operational conditions in contested environments against our strategic competitors. 

The Air Force, for example, has migrated to a common simulator platform to enhance interoperability and cybersecurity, and to integrate multiple domains. This step was taken in response to the insufficient capabilities of simulators that were designed as stand-alone devices, training crews to fly specific aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Navy is developing an integrated Live, Virtual, Constructive training environment, which merges live and synthetic training to prepare our forces for conflict against peer and near-peer competitors. At the same time, the Navy and Marine Corps are preparing for Large Scale Exercise 2021, a multi-domain maritime exercise that will test their ability to integrate and operationalize fleet design and supporting concepts at multiple levels of war.

As we continue to strengthen the United States military readiness for the future, our imperative is to build upon the gains we have made in recent years, while adapting to stay ahead of emerging challenges – including cyber.

We know adversaries and malign actors are attempting to attack and jeopardize the networks that our platforms, weapons, and formations rely upon to operate. The tremendous investments we have made in our most lethal capabilities could be rendered ineffective in a high-end fight, unless we treat cyber capability readiness with the same seriousness as we do materiel or personnel readiness. This is why the department has put cyber on par with the other elements of readiness I discussed earlier: people, equipment, and training. 

The coronavirus pandemic represents another challenge to our military and our industrial base. However, the department has been quick to minimize its impact on our forces, by taking immediate action, going back to January, to stem the spread of the virus in our ranks. We suspended international travel for our personnel, then shifted to a conditions-based approach. We published thirteen iterations of Force Health Protection guidelines since early February, when we activated our global pandemic response plan. And, we modified our training to mitigate COVID risks – this year’s RIMPAC exercise, for example, was held only at sea, without port calls. 

At the same time, we provided medical support, personal protective equipment, and other supplies to federal agencies working in hotspots around the country in support of the American people. And, through the Defense Production Act, we announced over $500 million worth of contracts to sustain essential domestic industrial base capabilities.

Meanwhile, more than 140 DoD labs have performed over 1.2 million COVID clinical diagnostic tests so far, as part of our work to enable the safe deployment of forces across the globe. And we are testing an average of 40,000-plus service members weekly; that number reached more than 54,000 earlier this year, due to our robust monitoring efforts. 

We also developed a convalescent plasma collection strategy to support advanced illness within the force, and collected nearly 11,000 units by the end of the fiscal year. While our competitors attempt to exploit the pandemic and extend their malign influence, the United States military continues to protect our people, remaining prepared to deter every threat, and to fight and win, if need be.

Lastly, the success of our efforts relies on the support of Congress. In the face of rising strategic threats, we depend on steady fiscal commitments to sustain our current force, and prepare for tomorrow’s challenges. The past few years of funding allowed us to rebuild our readiness after years of insufficient budgets, yielding significant results; 52 percent of our major combat force elements are able to generate more combat power during the initial phases of a conflict today than they could in 2017. 

Now, as I’ve said many times before, we need predictable, adequate, stable, and timely federal budgets to continue to support the investments of our industrial base, to grow our capabilities, and to further strengthen readiness. I would like to see 3-5% annual real growth for the Defense Department to stay ahead of the challenges we face, especially from China, and no more CRs!

Looking ahead, I am confident that the department’s civilian and military leaders are aligned to deliver more sustainable readiness, particularly as I meet regularly with them to assess our progress toward that goal. Much of this involves bringing together hundreds of data systems into a common, advanced analytics architecture that provides real-time data and predictive indicators. This tool allows senior leaders to evaluate readiness at every level, better manage our forces in response to emerging threats, and to make decisions to best address readiness challenges. 

The department’s vision for readiness is one in which our people are focused on great power competition from day one, and trained to deter and prevail in the high-end fight, while able to perform across the full spectrum of combat operations. It is a vision in which we have more planes in the air, more ships at sea, more units prepared to go into combat at a moment’s notice, more cyber warriors online, and more space assets ready to defend the high ground. 

It is a vision in which our people have the resources they need, when they need them, so that they never find themselves in a fair fight. We must, and will, maintain our decisive overmatch well into the future. 

And, it is a vision in which senior leaders have more flexibility to move our forces and equipment around the globe, enabling us to project power, to reassure our partners and allies, to deter aggression, and to effectively respond to emerging crises. 

Thanks to the hard work of our men and women in uniform, and with the support of Congress, industry, and our like-minded partners, the United States military will continue to honor that vision, and strengthen our readiness, now and in the years to come.

Thank you.